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Home / drug overdose death

Family sues Riverside County, sheriff over drug OD death of inmate

The family of an inmate who died while in custody at the Byrd Detention Center in Murrieta is federally suing Riverside County and Sheriff Chad Bianco over what the plaintiffs allege were civil rights violations because the inmate did not receive appropriate treatment.

The family of 29-year-old Richard Matus Jr. is seeking unspecified damage awards and other concessions from the county and the sheriff’s department stemming from his death on Aug. 11.

The family of the deceased inmate and their attorneys planned to speak at a news conference in front of U.S. District Court in downtown Riverside Friday morning.

“This action seeks to bring to public light the deliberate disregard for safety and protection carried out by the individual defendants in this action,” according to the 50-page civil suit.

It lists a range of causes, largely based on alleged violations of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which requires equal treatment under the law. However, there are also allegations of breaches of the California Civil Code, deprivations tied to alleged medical negligence and policy malfeasance.

Neither the county or sheriff’s officials immediately responded to a request for comment.

According to court records, Matus was awaiting adjudication of charges of attempted murder and armed robbery for a 2018 holdup at a Banning medical marijuana dispensary that left three people seriously injured. His brother and co-defendant, 23-year-old Raymond Matus, is slated to be tried in April on the same charges.

The lawsuit states Richard Matus died from a drug overdose after suffering a “medical emergency for an appreciable amount of time” last August.

The plaintiffs allege jail staff were deficient in their response and pointed to wider, systemic problems caused by the sheriff, his administrators and the county as a whole for setting the stage for their loved one’s loss.

Matus’ death was one of 18 in-custody fatalities in 2022, and that number represents what the plaintiffs called an “alarming” spike traced to the sheriff’s department’s “unconstitutional patterns and practices.”

In the previous 15 years, prior to 2022, the highest number of documented in-custody deaths was 12, the plaintiffs said.

“Long before Richard Matus Jr.’s death, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department knew that there existed a great indifference to the safety and protection of the inmates who were in the government’s custody within the county’s correctional facilities,” according to the suit.

The plaintiffs refer repeatedly to the federal lawsuit filed by the Bay Area-based Prison Law Group on behalf of convicted felon Quinton E. Gray in 2013.

That civil action sought to remedy what the plaintiffs claimed were ongoing failures in ensuring inmates with mental health disorders received appropriate treatment. The suit culminated in a settlement between the county and plaintiffs in 2016 in which the county entered into a federal consent decree, promising to significantly expand medical resources available to detainees. The health reforms came with a $40 million price tag.

According to the Matus suit, despite the consent decree, sheriff’s administrators have “deliberately failed to take even modest actions to prevent in-custody deaths at Riverside County correctional facilities.”

In addition to Matus, at least five other in-custody fatalities in 2022 were recorded as “drug overdoses,” according to the suit. Others included homicide, suicide and “natural causes.” However, three inmate deaths that occurred between Oct. 13 and Dec. 12 remain under investigation and undetermined.

The losses prompted the California Department of Justice last month to announce a civil rights investigation targeting Bianco and his staff. Attorney General Rob Bonta said at the time “it is clear … families and communities in Riverside County are hurting and looking for answers.”

“Whether you have a loved one in jail, or are worried about crime in your neighborhood, we all benefit when there is action to ensure the integrity of policing in our state,” he said.

Bianco fired back, saying publicly, “This investigation is based on nothing but false and misleading statements and straight-out lies from activists, including their attorneys. This will prove to be a complete waste of time and resources.”

He also questioned the legitimacy of the Matus family’s complaints to the DOJ, writing in an online forum, “Did they ever demand that their family members not commit crimes in the first place? Did their parents ever demand they take responsibility for their own actions?”

Along with an unstated monetary award, the plaintiffs are seeking changes in “policies, procedures and practices” that “mitigate the obvious well-known risks of harm attendant” in Richard Matus’ death.

No hearings have been set yet in the matter.

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